Sep 07, 2017

From a hurricane zone to wildfires at home: one Oregonian’s experience with climate change here and now

One of our supporters had the visceral experience of traveling to his hometown of Houston to help with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, only to return home to the flames of the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge. Here he shares his experience of climate change -- here, now, today -- and how we can help.

20170902_093004.jpgIs your family in Houston okay? Your friends? How were they affected?

My family is safe. It took my husband’s sister days to get back to her apartment because of high water. There was seven feet of water on the first floor of her unit, creating mold and mildew for the entire building. Everyone will have to move, even if their apartment was on a higher floor. I’d say about half of my friends experienced some level of flooding. They’re going through the clean up process now, which is time consuming and expensive. They’ll have to completely gut their homes -- remove drywall, flooring, etc. to safely rebuild. They’ll have to stay somewhere while that happens.

What made you feel like you needed to go back to Houston following Hurricane Harvey?

The City of Houston means a lot to me. I was born and raised there, graduated from the University of Houston, and I met my husband there. I felt like I needed to go back and help the place that helped define me. My priority on this trip was to provide support to friends and family, and volunteer with relief efforts. I wanted to be one more set of hands to help wherever I could be of use.

What was it like seeing the devastation up close? What did you see?

I flew in at night and couldn’t grasp the devastation immediately. Once I drove into neighborhoods, it was a shock. The smell was unbelievable. I saw furniture and belongings thrown on the curb -- everything from wet carpet to family photos. That’s when I really grasped the damage. I never thought I would see anything worse than Tropical Storm Allison in 2001; then, there were areas of town that had maybe 30 inches of rain. But Harvey’s devastation was so widespread. It didn’t matter if you were in an area prone to flooding or not.

What did you do while you were there to help out with relief efforts?

My mom and I worked a shift at the Houston Food Bank. I also worked a shift at the George R. Brown Convention Center, sorting donated clothes and packaging them to send to people in need. I helped shelter residents gain access to services, from accessing housing to being able to use the internet. I spent time with friends in their homes ripping up drywall, pulling up floors and moving flooded furniture out onto the sidewalk.

20170902_153727.jpgHow is everyone doing?

The City of Houston, in general, is very hopeful and optimistic. It was inspiring to see the community come together across partisan divides to do what was needed to save lives and start rebuilding right away. The business community, the City, and local government have really stepped up. Everyone seems motivated to move forward and rebuild. But not everyone is privileged to have flood insurance, and we don’t know how much FEMA will support them. That’s the case for a lot of people -- they’re just waiting. On the ground in the shelters, people are struggling. These are individuals who don’t even have a friend that’s offered to let them stay on their couch. They truly have nowhere to go. Luckily, there’s a lot of people getting connected to services, but they are heartbroken to say the least. 

Where do you see the biggest need to help those affected? What services or donations are most helpful? 

Cash donations are helpful. There has been a lot of supplies, clothing and food donated. That should continue when it’s asked for, but cash donations make a big difference when you’re talking about people who have lost everything and need to rebuild. Beyond Houston, Hurricane Harvey destroyed the cities of Rockport and Port Aransas. We need to go beyond what the media is covering to check on communities heavily impacted by the storm.

You grew up in Houston. Are hurricanes and flooding a normal part of being a Houston resident?

 I’ve witnessed four or five significant flooding events in my lifetime, and I’m only in my early 30’s. Not all events are associated with a tropical storm; sometimes heavy rainfall over several days in a row can cause flooding. Flooding is a part of life there, and you learn that the bayous will flood, the retention ponds will flood. Certain areas just flood. A lot of the city parks are built on floodplains and are meant to flood. But neighborhoods and homes flooding is not as common. At least until now.

I feel like there is a definite connection between climate change and these increasingly intense storms. Hurricane Harvey went from a tropical storm to a major hurricane very quickly. I hope that with extreme weather events happening at a higher frequency, people will start to listen to what scientists have long said about climate change and the need to drastically reduce global emissions. 

Flying home, you were caught in the Eagle Creek wildfire smoke. What was that like to see?

Flying home on Labor Day evening, we approached PDX around 11:30pm -- the day that the Eagle Creek fire had really grown and intensified. I hadn’t exactly been keeping up with the headlines during my weekend in Houston, so I didn’t have any idea what was going on. As we approached, it was pitch black outside but we could see flames on the ground. There was an orange glow. Then all of a sudden, the entire plane smelled like smoke. It was pretty terrifying actually.

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How does it feel to see this climate disasters back to back like this? 

It was odd going from one disaster area to another -- being around Red Cross shelter areas for a few days, then getting news that another Red Cross shelter close to my home in Portland was opening up. It was scary. You get the feeling like nowhere is safe, or exempt from what’s happening. Portland isn’t used to experiencing this heavy of smoke or ash. It’s good we’re becoming aware in Portland, but we need to know that this happens in rural communities even more often. Our neighbors have been dealing with wildfire smoke for weeks. We need to stay aware and committed to solutions even when the wind shifts, even when the headlines change, even when the ash goes away. This week offered a glimpse into what’s ahead. Will we act on what we’ve seen, or settle back into the false assurance that our town won’t be hurt by climate change? 

Once the headlines change, once the disaster stops impacting our daily lives, we need to continue to support these communities, to prioritize climate action, depoliticize the topic, and act not just on scientific predictions of what’s coming, but what we’ve seen ourselves that’s already here. In Oregon, Clean Energy Jobs is our chance to take that action. I’ve supported Renew Oregon’s work since the beginning but now, I believe their work is more urgent than ever. 

 

Adam Green is the Development Director for Oregon Humanities. He and his husband, Jason, live in Portland. He has spent his career working and volunteering with nonprofit organizations focused on community health.